Common Ancestry in John 4

Common Ancestry in John 4 August 29, 2017

Before turning back to the Gospel of John in my Sunday school class this past weekend, I shared information about the Butler Seminar on Religion and Global Affairs on the topic of “Religion, Refugees, and Migration.” As a point of entry into that topic, I asked students to investigate their own family history, and the interplay of religion and migration in it.

When we turned to John 4 after that prelude, it struck me in a new way. Jesus and the Samaritan woman (note how the patriarchal author doesn’t bother to provide her name) meet at the well where Jacob and Rachel met, at the same time of day. They met under the cloud of all that lay behind that parenthetical remark, “Jews/Judeans do not have dealings with Samaritans.”

In other words, representatives of two different Israelite tribes, separated now by a sense of religious and ethnic difference, met at the place where their own ancestors met, two ancestors that both of them probably shared in common. From Jacob, renamed Israel, the children of Israel branch off in a variety of interconnected and intertwined directions. The tribe of Benjamin folded into the kingdom of Judah, and Simeon was also there in the south. The northern tribes were, like the southern, descended from Jacob and not only Rachel, but also her sister Leah. But whether the point is made through both Jacob and Rachel, or only Jacob, the point remains. That geographical location where a Galilean man of Jewish extraction and a Samaritan woman encountered one another was famous because it was a place of love, a place where their shared ancestor encountered a woman that he would marry.

It was a perfect place for the boundaries that had grown up between his children to be challenged, transcendend, and overcome. And we need to remember, even though we are not told her name, that this heroic act of reconciliation was carried out not unilaterally by Jesus, but bilaterally by him and his unnamed conversation partner.

Rediscovereding a shared connection, even after more than a millennium has passed, can have a powerful transformative impact.

It happened in the Gospel of John. It happens when white supremacists get their DNA test results back and see “African” in the mix. It happens when Protestants discover that significant things happened in church history between the new Testament and the Reformation.

Had you viewed the story in John 4 through the lens of family history and shared ancestry before now?

Annibale Carracci, The Samaritan Woman at the Well.
Annibale Carracci, The Samaritan Woman at the Well.

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  • What? Genesis 29:10 notes the couple were related, “When Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother.” So it’s a tale of kissing cousins. Not about bridging some “gap” you are trying to sermonize about.

    • Are you trying to read my comments about John 4 as though they were about Genesis 29?!

      • You alluded to Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan women as paralleling the meeting of Jacob and Rachel at that same well, per the author of John’s tale. But the first meeting at that well consisted of the romantic attraction of two cousins. I don’t see in that first meeting a bridging of any gaps of racial or religious prejudice, so I don’t see how the well by itself signifies such a bridge as you attempt to draw out in your blog post.

        • As I wrote in response to this same exact comment which you left on Facebook: “As I said very explicitly in my post, this was a meeting of two people who understood themselves to be separated by religious and national distinctions at the place where their common ancestors first came into contact with one another. That they were already related makes the shared heritage that is in the background of this story set in a time when “Jews do not have dealings with Samaritans” all the more poignant.”

          If you are going to misunderstand what I write, could you at least have the decency to do so in one place at a time? This is ridiculously frustrating. 🙁

          • First, technically speaking, “Samaritans” claim descent from the tribe of Ephraim and tribe of Manasseh (two sons of Joseph who did NOT meet his wife at that well) as well as from the Levites (and Levites claim descent from Jacob and Leah, NOT Jacob and Rachel).

            Second, I don’t think the passage is about RECONCILING Jews with Samaritans, nor about RECONCILING racial or religious tensions between any two groups so much as an attempt by the ingenious author of John to illustrate Jesus’ centrality and drawing power. The point of the “well” for the author of John may have been part of a wider bridegroom analogy (the fourth Gospel reeks of hyperbolic analogies being applied to Jesus almost every time he opens his mouth, always speaking of himself, little to no talk about the kingdom of God which filled Jesus’ mouth throughout the synoptics). Scholars have noted that this story appears to be modeled on a standard betrothal scene from Hebrew scripture, particularly that of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well in Genesis 29. This convention, which would have been familiar to Jewish readers, is subverted by presenting Jesus as the Bridegroom of the Jewish people, following on from an earlier scene in which John the Baptist compares his relationship to Jesus with that of the friend of a bridegroom. It’s a theological creation most likely, attempting to illustrate Jesus’s drawing power, in this case for Samaritans, but not just for Samaritans as the rest of the fourth Gospel attempts to illustrate ad nauseum. Jesus is not merely a bridegroom, but, “If I be lifted up I will draw ALL men to me…,” “I am the light of THE WORLD,” “I am the good shepherd,” “the way, the truth and the light,” “Before Abraham was, I am,” “I give living water,” “if you don’t eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you,” etc. And all of these boasts about Jesus are in blatant contrast to the anti-language in John that demonstrates a growing harsh division between the elect/chosen/those whom the Father has given Jesus, and the rest of the world, the latter being “damned already” for their unbelief. No life within them. Atrocious stuff, probably composed after the rift between Christianity and Judaism had increased rather than decreased: